"Paul the Apostle", by Robert E. Picirilli (book review)

“Paul the Apostle” took quite a long time for me to review, and it was not for lack of interest in it.  Instead, there was so much information to digest, cross-reference, and make notations of the information in my Bible margins.  Wow, what a tremendous resource this book proved to be!  There are so many positives to this book, so I’ll limit it to just a handful.

First, Picirilli provided excellent historical and cultural insight into the Apostle Paul’s life, from his pre-conversion days up to his martyrdom.  So much of what he revealed about Paul helps to shed light on the context of scripture and his ministry.

Second, Picirilli made good use of breaks to place "insert" articles within the chapter bodies.  I’ve read numerous books where side-bar comments and insert articles appear at some of the most inopportune times, causing me to lose focus on the paragraph or thought being read.  But Picirilli inserted “insert” articles at logical places so that the reader could continue reading without having to skip around and return to the storyline somewhere else.  These insert articles provide various nuances that add to the chapter’s information, but may or may not have necessarily directly applied to the particular text.  They were simply extra insights.  For instance, one good insert explained what political and military structures looked like during Paul's time, but that insert was not the primary purpose of the chapter.  The insert articles could be skipped, if the reader desired, but their information added greatly to the rest of the text.

Third, a feature I liked in this book pertained to the brief handling of each of the Pauline epistles as they likely would have been written within the chronology of the unfolding storyline of the book of Acts.  When handled, Picirilli treated Paul's epistles with a relatively quick, fly-by fashion, but with sufficient detail to explain themes and purposes of those letters.  However, each epistle’s outline and general themes were provided.  These would be phenomenal tools for digging deeper into the epistles in personal or group Bible study.

Finally, as I suggest for any book labeled and sold as “Christian”, it is always good to have a Bible open as you read this one.  First, it’s crucial that Christians always be reading books biblically and critically, guarding against erroneous teaching.  Second, have a Bible on hand is helpful for adding notes and cross-references in the margins.

While this book contained such a deep level of information about the Apostle Paul’s life, Picirilli made it easy to read and comprehend.  This book would probably be a bit too much for a new / young believer, but would be greatly helpful for the more mature.

RATING: I give this book 5 out of 5 stars for its depth, insight, and usefulness.

DISCLAIMER: I received “Paul the Apostle” free of charge from Moody Press in exchange for my unbiased review of it.  All opinions are mine.


How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets", by Peter J. Gentry (book review)

I was drawn into this book from the early pages, as the author, Peter J. Gentry, captured my attention by pointing out that I have so much more to learn about various genres of literature.  Prophetic literature contained in the Christian Bible is just one of those genres.

Gentry makes it clear that understanding the genre, the intended audience, the culture, etc. all play important roles in correctly interpreting the original author's intent.  For instance, readers today would likely draw different conclusions about the following headlines printed found in different sections of a local newspaper: "Tigers Maul Blue Jays", or "Lions Clash with Jaguars".  Thess headlines found in the Nation and World section would carry far different interpretations than the same headings being found in the sports section. One has a literal interpretation, while the other is metaphorical.

In a nutshell, Gentry's words say this about his own book's purpose: This " focuses...on how Hebrew literature works and how it differs from the kind of literature we are familiar with in the Western world."  Therefore, Gentry introduces the reader to various Hebraic literary methods -- such as chiastic structures, apocalyptic language, the use of oracles, and foretelling future events, etc. -- in order to simply and clearly explain to readers how to recognize these literary differences. Once we recognize these techniques, then we are more likely to better interpret the passages in which they are used.

I would definitely have benefited from reading this book several years ago, but am very thankful for the opportunity to read this today. It has opened my eyes toward a deeper understanding of God's word.  I would definitely recommend this book to any reader and student of God's word who aims to dig below surface level reading of scripture.

I definitely give this book 5 out of 5 stars!

I received the digital version of How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets free of charge from Crossway in exchange for my unbiased review of it.  All opinions are mine.


"How Does Sanctification Work?", by David Powlison (book review)

I initially looked forward to reviewing this book because I appreciate David Powlison's preaching.  I think he is a gifted communicator of God's word.  However, I have to admit that this very easy and straightforward read left me disappointed.  I expected the book to be a bit more academic and theological, but it was simple...almost too simplistic.

The intent was to explore how sanctification (progressive growth in godliness) happens over the course of a believer's life.  Instead of really digging into theology, however, Powlison, in my opinion, only skimmed the surface in shallow manner.  The book left me with more questions than answers...which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I was looking for more.  Since sanctification happens differently for most Christians, it may very well have been his writing style that did not capture my mind's attention.  I didn't have the feeling that I couldn't put it down, or that I had to keep feeding on its contents. Instead, I didn't have much desire to continue reading it (but for the sake of an honest review, I did).

It appeared Powlison assumed all of his readers would be believers because he discussed sanctification long before explaining the gospel.  Just as salvation precedes sanctification, I think discussing the gospel and its implications prior to addressing sanctification would have been a wiser approach.  A sinner cannot be sanctified apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ, but must be made right with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and the sacrifice he made on sinners' place.  Only after turning from sin and to God does the process of progressive sanctification begin.  I think reversing the order of these two crucial topics would have been better.

Four of the eleven chapters were "stories": the author's (2 chapters), Charles', and Charlotte's.  I can appreciate the value of adding real-world scenarios to the book, but it didn't do anything for me, really. I wasn't impacted with any "a-ha's" or moments of mental clarity as a result of reading the "stories".  Quite frankly, they seemed like filler space stories for an already very short book. 

RATING: I think this book could have used a bit more work and thought before going to press.  I would have been disappointed if I had paid money for it.  For that, I give it just 2 1/2 stars.

DISCLAIMER: I received this digital version of this book free of charge from Crossway books in exchange for my unbiased review of it.  All opinions are mine.


"God Is", by Mark Jones (book review)

Have you lost sight of the glory, majesty, and wonder of who God is?  Of who Jesus is?  While we cannot fully know God, we can know Him truly in how He has chosen to reveal Himself in His Word.  Sadly, however, much of our society has grown self-reliant, not needing God.  Even preaching abounds today that offers a hurting, broken world a feeble, small god.  For these reasons, “God Is”, by Mark Jones, senior pastor at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (British Columbia), is a seriously important and needed book on many levels. 

The book is comprised of 26 chapters, each dealing relatively briefly with a singular attribute of God.  I say “relatively briefly” because each chapter could indeed be lengthier, but for the purpose of readability at a non-academic level, the chapters are digestible in as little as 10-15 minutes.  Each chapter is further broken down into three sub-sections: (1) Doctrine; (2) How Christ manifests or displays the particular attribute; and (3) Application for believers.

Some Practical Uses  (certainly not an exhaustive list):

First, “God Is” has the God-Man Christ Jesus at its center.  Many “best-sellers” fall flat because they never truly address the Lordship of Christ or our need for Him.  Many simply treat Him as a genie in a bottle, here to make your life more comfortable.  This book will energize and renew your confidence in who Jesus Christ is.

Second, “God Is” could be used to direct one’s personal Bible study.  Anyone who chooses to dig deeper into the attributes of God would be helped by using this book.

Third, “God Is” could just as easily be used to direct a small group Bible study.  The chapters are short enough and readable for the average person to be helpful.  While there are numerous theological words throughout, Jones handles them very simply.  A small group could easily handle reading, studying, discussing, and praying through one attribute (chapter) per week.

Fourth, “God Is” is a WONDERFUL tool to direct one’s personal prayer life.  As I read each chapter, I found myself praying in thankfulness that God has revealed Himself to be as described in the particular attribute.  Praying with these attributes in the forefront of my mind as deepened my prayers.

Finally, “God Is” is well researched, providing biblical and historical support for the views explained.  Jones leaned upon several authors (John Owen, Herman Bavinck, and Stephen Charnock, to name a few), which inspired me to want to read those authors’ works as well.

In our society, even those within the church have a difficult time when someone may correct their theology, even when done correctly and gently.  Many say, “Well, who are you to say who God is?  We can’t really know Him anyway.  Who says I’m wrong?”  I appreciate how Jones summed up such a reproach: “What do we really say when we speak of God?  It is a wonder that we can say anything about Him, and yet he commands us to do so and to do it truly and well” (Loc. 2951)In other words, we may not know God fully, but we must know Him truly as He has chosen to reveal Himself.  After all, “a poor doctrine of God leads to a poor understanding of Christ, and vice versa” (Loc. 2969).

Rating: I give “God Is” 5 out of 5 stars.

Disclaimer: I received the Kindle format of this book free of charge from Crossway in exchange for my unbiased review of it.  All opinions are mine.


Get Out of that Pit, by Beth Moore (book review)

Ah-ya-ya, where do I begin?  Well, I guess I’ll just start with the cover.  I’ll be honest, any time a Christian author writes a book, and that author’s pretty face is on the cover, I’m immediately skeptical of its contents.  No doubt about it, Beth Moore is pretty much knock-out gorgeous. But does she belong on the cover, if in fact the book is about Jesus?

When I opened the book to find it was originally published in 2007, I wondered, “Why release this one for review when it’s already 10 years old?”  Then I read the back cover: “Get Out of That Pit...has sold 750,000 copies.”  Is it being re-released in order to reach that 1-million-books-sold mark? I don't know, but if so, there's nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

Ok, on to the meat of the review.  Although skeptical of Beth Moore’s teaching, I honestly tried reading this book with an open mind…guarded, but open.  However, it wasn't long before the confusion and scripture-twisting appeared.  Confusion: Beth wasn’t really clear on what a PIT actually is.  I gathered it was apparently some supposed difficult spot, life-challenge, or difficulty one finds him/herself in.  She said we could be “thrown in”, “slip in”, or “jump in”, but I didn't quite understand what a pit is.  However, she was indeed clear to point out that she was not primarily talking about pits of SIN (p. 13).  She simply described a pit as “feeling stuck” (p. 14), not being able to “stand up” (p. 16), and a loss of “vision” (p. 17), whatever all that means.  

As I read, I wondered if I was being too hard on her.  Maybe she simply intended this to be nothing more than a light self-help book, a motivational tool to do better in life.  But when an author quotes scripture AND calls him- or herself a Bible teacher, the book passes over from one side of the aisle (self-help) to the other (religious).  To her credit, Beth certainly quotes a fair share of scripture.  In many cases, however, she did it badly, misinterpreting several passages outside of their original contexts.

Case in point: While introducing the "pit" idea in chapter one, Beth cited Jeremiah 38:6, telling her readers that Jeremiah's pit was simply "a place of sinking down."  A couple paragraphs later, she called it "feeling stuck" (p.15).  One needs only read Jeremiah 37:11 - 38:6 to gain a better understanding of the context of the passage cited.  There, Jeremiah had just been accused of planning to defect to Judah's enemy, and was therefore thrown into prison by the royal officials.  King Zedekiah proceeded to ask Jeremiah if there was a word from the Lord.  Jeremiah faithfully relayed to the king some not-so-good news: that the king would be delivered over to the hands of the Babylonians.  Additionally, Jeremiah spoke of the troubles that would come to the people if they refused to listen to his words.  Of course, his words weren't well received, so he was subsequently thrown into a dungeon.  A LITERAL dungeon...not a figurative place where he simply "felt stuck".  Notice that he thrown there for obediently proclaiming the words of God to a stubborn, sinful people. Knowing the message was unfavorable, Jeremiah remained steadfast and obedient.  But Beth Moore used this passage as a "moralistic" story (insert similar morals of bad sermons asking, "What giants do you need to defeat in your life?", or "What storms does Jesus want to still in your life?", etc.) to support her main theme.

Here's another example...still only in chapter one.  While trying to explain one of the ways to know you're stuck in a pit, Moore said you can know when "you've lost vision" (p.17). Moore wrote, "All image-bearers of God were intended to overflow with effervescent life, stirring and spilling with God-given vision.  That's partly what the apostle Paul was talking about when he prayed that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened in order that we might know the hope to which Christ has called us (Ephesians 1:18)" (p.18).  Ummmmm, no.  That's actually NOT what Paul meant...not even partly what Paul meant.  He wasn't talking about some esoterical vision.  By the way, when authors/teachers use key words like "vision" and "destiny", buyer beware!  It's probably just spiritual fluff to make whatever they're trying to say sound better than it truly is. But I digress. 

In the first chapter in his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul was clearly explaining what it meant to be redeemed in Jesus Christ, using words like "chosen", "sealed", "accepted", "forgiven", etc.  Paul then goes on to say that he's been praying for his brothers and sisters in Christ, that they would be granted the Spirit's wisdom and revelation (understanding) to open their eyes to know their hope in being called in Christ, to know what their inheritance in Christ is, etc. In other words, it's all about Jesus Christ!  What Beth was talking about was really nowhere close to what Paul was talking about.  Instead, she took Paul's words, twisted them to fit a flimsy idea of being stuck in a figurative "pit", and then tried to call it God's word.

Aside from poor scripture application/interpretation, not once did Beth Moore clearly present the true gospel of Jesus Christ to her readers.  Sure enough, she mentioned (in passing) words like sin, forgiveness, and the cross, but they were so strung out across the book that the gospel presentation wasn't at all clear, if present all.  I wonder if she naively thinks all of her readers are true believers in Jesus Christ who know the true gospel?  A woman of her influence would do well to recognize that there are probably several ladies who've been invited to Beth Moore-based Bible studies, or who have been handed one of her books,  because her teaching style is funny and palatable.  By the sheer numbers of people who like her style, reason would suggest not all of her readers are truly saved.  Additionally, I hope she doesn't think true believers don't need to be reminded of and encouraged in the gospel.  Her style makes me wonder if the gospel is just for "getting saved", only to be jettisoned for the real stuff later.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is for the sinner, as well as the saint.  When a grieving mother despairs over her son's untimely death due to a drug overdose, she doesn't need to know a few fancy tricks to discover and get out of a figurative pit; She needs to know that her first priority is being at peace with God through the forgiveness of her own sins through Jesus Christ alone; She needs to know that the Holy Spirit is drawing her to bow at the foot of the cross, lay all of her burdens down, and trust Jesus Christ to care for her; She needs to know that God is sovereign over life, as well as death; She needs to know that she must surrender even this tragedy over to Christ Jesus, trusting in His providence; She needs to know that she must warn others of the deadly effects sin has wrought on humanity (Romans 3:23).  Sadly, none of this was in Beth Moore's book.  There was no directing readers to the cross of Jesus Christ, and that is truly sad for a "Christian" book/author.

I recognize this book is already 10 years old, and I hope Beth Moorer's teaching/speaking/writing style has changed to be cross-centered.  But if this is who she is, and if her teachings are your source of spiritual food, then it is my opinion that you are in a very dangerous place.  This kind of teaching is dangerous because it may very well dupe you into thinking you're in Christ, when, in fact, you may actually be quite far from him because you've not truly (I don't mean completely or fully, but truly) understood his gospel.

Recommendation: Well, I don't recommend this book to anyone, quite honestly.  I'll keep it only as a reference for times when I need to help other believers caught in a "pit" to read books more carefully.

Rating: I give "Get Out of That Pit" just 1 out of 5 stars.

Disclaimer: I received this book free of charge from Handlebar in exchange for my unbiased review of it.  I was not required to provide a positive review of it.  All opinions are mine.


"One Minute After You Die", by Erwin W. Lutzer (book review)

In 2nd Corinthians 13:5, the Apostle Paul instructs his readers to examine our lives to see if we are in Christ. When I was a young man, I rarely did this, and even rarer still did I ever consider the realities of death. It was always way out there over a far-distant horizon, as I though I believed that day would never arrive. As I age, however, I realize that I am already several years closer to death then I was as a young man, and realize I -- at any time -- could be checking into my appointment with death.

"One Minute After You Die", by Erwin Lutzer is a short and easy read, but is one that is full of inspiration to saints and sinners alike to examine our lives before that certain date with death.

The book's early chapters introduce the reader to a certain eternity, one of doom for the sinner, and hope for the saint. Much of the book's middle chapters deal with the hope and joy awaiting the believer who dies in Christ, while the last couple chapters explain to the sinner that death may very well usher him into eternal doom.
I was most encouraged by chapter 7, entitled, "When the Curtain Opens for You." There, Dr. Lutzer offers exceedingly great hope to the Christian who can know with full assurance that our death, regardless of the immediate cause, is ultimately in the hands of almighty God.  In Christ, we who have placed our trusting faith in Him, can die confidently.
My disappointments with the book are two-fold, however.  First, Dr. Lutzer seemed to be more interested in making his readers merely desire to gain heaven or avoid hell.  While those aren't inherently bad things, they seem to be more about seeking the reward, rather than the One who rewards.  I think it would have come across better if Dr. Lutzer had a goal to inspire the reader to love and pursue Christ more and to fervently hate sin more.  Heaven is the reward for trusting in Christ Jesus, while hell is the consequence of continuing to live in sin. 
Additionally, Dr. Lutzer seemed to make some assumptive stretches in some parts of his theology.  The introduction said he wanted to look at what God's word had to say about the matter, but then made some assumptions about certain questions.  One, for instance, is the age of saints in eternity.  Will babies be older?  He suggested, if I recall correctly, that parents may even raise their children to maturity while in heaven.  But, to disagree with his positions on these matters are rather trivial, since he didn't write heretically about core doctrines of the faith.  It just came across as inconsistent.
Recommendation: This book is simple enough to read that one need not be highly knowledgeable of the language of Christianity to understand it. Therefore, it may serve as a good evangelism tool.
Rating: I give "One Minute After You Die" 3 stars out of 5. It is easily understandable and contains priceless insights that will likely inspire readers to examine their lives in preparation for death.
Disclaimer: I received this book free of charge from Moody Publishers in exchange for my unbiased review of it. All opinions are mine, and I was not coerced to provide a positive review of it.


Conversion: How God Creates a People”, by Dr. Michael Lawrence, pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, is one book in the 9Marks series of “Building Healthy Churches”.

I selected to review this book because I’m also reading another book about conversion at the time, and I know these series of books are relatively short, quick reads.  That is true of this book, but it is packed full of hard-hitting truth in relatively a brief introduction, 8 chapters, and conclusion.

As the title suggests, the book covers a biblical understanding of true conversion.  I cannot say enough good about this book, as it punches square in the nose many of the problems seen in the church related to false conversions.

Chapter 1: “New, Not Nice” explains that we are made altogether “new”, not merely functionally “nice” upon our conversion.  Converts must be completely regenerated (something God does), and not merely reformed better versions of our past selves.  Merely being nice is not the same thing as being right with God.

Chapter 2: “Saved, Not Sincere” addresses the issue of our not being saved by sincerity or intense emotions, but only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.  Anything else makes salvation about us rather than about God’s glory.

Chapter 3: “Disciples, Not Decisions” focuses on a biblical understanding of repentance.  Faith requires churches to make disciples, not decisions.

Chapter 4: “Holy, Not Healed” (my favorite) deals hard blows to the false “therapeutic gospel”, which is no gospel at all.  This false gospel is prevalent in the church today, and is so common that is goes largely unrecognizable as being false.  The therapeutic gospel suggests Jesus came to give you a better marriage, a more successful career, to make you a better parent, etc.  While truly following Jesus may lead to those results, there is no guarantee any or all will happen.  This gospel is me-centered, rather than God-centered.  Instead, the true gospel calls us to the lordship of Christ, setting us apart to a new master and a new love.

Chapter 5: “Distinct, Not Designed” discusses that no action, word, or deed other than our love for fellow Christians will the world know the church is distinctly different from the world.  And when the world sees our love for those who dislike us, then it will see the church is radically different.

Chapter 6: “Summon, Don’t Sell” The call to evangelize calls us to proclaim the gospel plainly, honestly, urgently, and confidently.  Our role is not to “seal the deal”, for that is God’s doing.  Don’t sugar-coat or soften the challenges the gospel declares.

Chapter 7: “Assess Before You Assure” deals with difficulty of balancing false assurances of genuine faith in others, and discerning true faith.  Faith is a living, active hope and trust that produces a pattern of growth.  Give others the benefit of the doubt, and encourage them when you see evidences of grace.  At the same time, be careful about giving false assurance.

Chapter 8: “Charitable, Not Chary” deals with the difficulty of sinners within the church.  The church is not for those who have already arrived in heaven, but for those whose longings are for heaven.  The church calls the immature, the imperfect, the weak, the hurt, and the scandalous to her – not to remain there, but to grow in her.  Note: “chary” means “reluctance to do something”.

RATING: I give “Conversion” 5 out of 5 stars.  It is truly a must-read, and would be an excellent read for new converts, as it reminds us to always check ourselves that we are in the faith.

Disclaimer: I received this book free of charge free of charge from Crossway Publishers in exchange for my unbiased review of it.  All opinions are mine, and I was not forced to provide a positive review.